About Corazon

Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: Architects of Annihilation

Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction. By Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002. Pp. 514).

The events that led up to the atrocities of the Holocaust have been a source of ardent debate for historians. Being able to add clarity to the fog of Holocaust historiography is no small task for any writer. In their work, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction, historians Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim have effectively provided simple but convincing evidence that adds a new perspective to this critical historical event. Instead of prescribing to the traditional view of Holocaust historiography, Aly and Heim have challenged the status quo interpretation of the causes of the Holocaust by rejecting the notion that Nazi atrocities are simply too evil to be understood from a scholarly perspective. Instead, Aly and Heim suggest that it is both logical and prudent to view the Holocaust as a well constructed and detailed plan of mass execution (Pp. 4-5).

The central component in the development of Aly and Heim’s thesis is their suggestion that the Nazi extermination of the Jewish population was not motivated purely by racial hatred, but by a desire to establish German economic hegemony over the whole of Europe. In an effort to secure their economic destiny, the Nazi regime embarked on a, “negative population policy,” which sought to achieve, “an optimum population size” (Pp. 4). In other words, the Nazi’s targeted undesirable groups of the population in an effort to purify the German economic machine. The Nazi justification for the elimination of specific groups of the population came from the belief that, ‘Europe was one vast wasteland crying out for ‘readjustment’ and ‘reconstruction,’” (Pp. 7). Aly and Heim suggest that the Jewish population made a perfect target for the Nazi’s “negative population policy,” because of their strong participation in the German and Austrian economies, which was quickly branded as a detriment to Germany’s quest for economic superiority. Instead of being branded and persecuted by racist xenophobes, Aly and Heim suggest that the Jewish population’s sufferings originate out of the Nazi doctrine of economic domination.

To help support their claims, Aly and Heim appeal to the role of Auschwitz as a micro history of sorts, which they believe is representative of the larger Nazi policy of “negative population.” Aly and Heim point out the fact that the construction of Auschwitz coincided with Germany’s plan to improve the economic situation in Poland. From the Nazi perspective, Poland was a virtual economic backwater in desperate need of modernization. According to Aly and Heim, the construction and implementation of Auschwitz as a means of population control became a medium through which Poland could be put on the path towards economic prosperity, In other words, the “undesirable” or “excess” segments of the population that were seen as a burden to the Polish economy could simply be collected and eventually eliminated in the most efficient way possible. This bold move towards “social modernization,” in which segments of the Polish population were forced into camps such as Auschwitz, gave the Nazi regime all the justification it needed to further its acts of brutality.

In addition to their analysis of Auschwitz and other parts of Eastern Europe, Aly and Heim devote a large amount of their book to the role of social and economic “technocrats,” who they believe were the principle developers of the Nazi policy of population control. In this regard, Aly and Heim are, yet again, directly challenging the traditional historiography of Holocaust research. Instead of placing the blame on the shoulders of Nazi elites, Aly and Heim suggest that it was the contributions of social scientists (sociologists, economists, demographers, etc.) that were instrumental in developing the Nazi doctrine of negative population. Aly and Heim clearly support the notion that the German policy of population control would not have come to fruition without the involvement of these social “technocrats,” who were given free rein to develop and present their Darwinian-influenced ideas of population control and economic growth to the Nazi hierarchy.

Though clearly a unique perspective into the development of German economics and population control, this book fails to address the role of racism anti-Semitism in the Nazi doctrine of “negative population.” Despite Aly and Heim’s sporadic mentioning of German racism, there is a noticeable omission of its possible influence in shaping Germany’s policy towards the “undesirable” segments of society. Instead, Aly and Heim suggest that German racism and anti-Semitism were used as a secondary influence, which helped to bring about the primary goal of German economic superiority.

Despite its controversial claims, Architects of Annihilation should be seen as an enlightening perspective into the possible motives behind the horrors of the Holocaust. Gots Aly and Susanne Heim’s interpretation of Nazi policy is likely to inspire a plethora of debate between critics and supporters on the issue. Regardless of what skeptics or believers may say, this work should remain as a unique contribution to the historiography of the Holocaust.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Zakary's First Play

Here are a few pictures (and video) from Zakary's first school play. His part: an ant. Cute stuff:

And a video:

Great job, little buddy! The best ant I have EVER seen!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Viva Chile: The United States and the Chilean Coup of 1973

In the United States, September 11, 2001 is a date equated with terrible tragedy. Virtually every American who lived through that event remembers with horror they felt when they first saw the images of the burning Trade Towers and the Pentagon. That appalling event has been forever seared into the collective memory of American society in too many ways to mention. And though 9/11 has been unofficially claimed as a American day of mourning, the date has an even older meaning for a nation that is often forgotten in the muddle of world affairs. Twenty-eight years earlier, on September 11, 1973, the Chilean nation watched in disbelief as General Agusto Pinochet led an orchestrated coup to overthrow their socialist president Salvador Allende. With the same bewilderment that captivated Americans at the sight of the Trade Towers collapsing, the Chilean people were mesmerized as they witnessed the destruction of their government’s headquarters, known as La Moneda. They listened intently to Radio Agricultura’s broadcast of President Allende’s final words: “Viva Chile!” Shortly thereafter, Chileans came to the realization that September 11 would be a hallmark day in their own history, even though it is currently overshadowed by America’s tragedy.

How and why the Chilean Golpe del Estado (the Chilean coup) took place is both complicated and controversial. The convoluted makeup of Chilean politics, along with its struggling economy were certainly factors in the eventual overthrow, but they do not tell the whole story. Chile also found itself thrown onto the major stage of international politics, caught in a virtual tug-o-war between rival nations. Once the Marxist agenda of presidential candidate Salvador Allende gained serious support, the United States felt forced to intervene to protect its own interests. It was the political divisions within Chile, combined with the involvement of U.S. interests in shaping Chilean politics that created an atmosphere of political tension, and was the major catalyst for the Chilean coup of 1973.

While it is true that the shaping of Chilean politics and government began in the nineteenth century, the major factors are more modern. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chile was a nation with a strong tradition of democratic elections and practices. By the early 1960s, Chilean politics had become diverse and complex. Five major political parties had formed within Chile, each promising economic prosperity to the people: The extreme right of Chilean politics consisted of the liberals and conservatives, who merged to form the National Party, the Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party were predominantly centrist parties, and the Socialist and Communist Parties made up the extreme left. The majority of Chilean people during the early 1960s favored the center of the political spectrum, in particular the Christian Democratic Party. In 1964 the party won the Chilean presidency with the strong leadership of Eduardo Frei. Frei promised the Chilean people sweeping reforms and economic prosperity. By the latter end of the decade, however, the party had lost momentum. Their inability to establish a coalition with the Radical Party (the party that most closely shared their views) spelled the beginning of the end for the Democratic Christian Party.

The economy also remained a problematic issue for the Chilean government. Compared to other Latin American nations, the Chilean economy was at the higher echelon, but was also on the decline. Soaring inflation rates festered the Chilean economy. In fact, From 1972-1974, Chilean inflation rates were the worst on the planet. The Democratic Christian Party had worked tirelessly to redirect the course of the economy, but met with only minimal success. As a result, the door was opened to the other political parties to seize power.

By 1970, Chilean politics were ripe for change. The political left began gaining new support for its agenda, promising a new prosperous era for the nation. At the head of the Socialist agenda was Salvador Allende. Allende had been in government for many years, and had even run for President three times before. His agenda had always lacked the support that the Democratic Christians enjoyed, and as a result, Allende was never able to achieve the presidency.

The Presidential election of 1970 gave Allende and the Socialists a golden opportunity to finally win. The political right of Chilean politics had lost support, and President Frei of the Democratic Christians was unable to run again for the presidency (the Chilean constitution allowed a person to serve as President for one term of six years). With Frei’s departure, the Democratic Christians had nobody as popular to run against Allende. The left nominated Jorge Alessandri, a former Chilean president, while the Democratic Christians nominated the unknown and unpopular Radomiro Tomic. For once it looked as though Allende had a serious chance to win the election

International reaction to the Chilean election was diverse. The United States took a strong stance opposing the Allende campaign. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger stated that Allende’s strongest ambition was for Chile and Cuba to unite, and to “create the revolution in Latin America.” The very idea that socialist governments could spring up in Latin America was unacceptable to the United States, which had already been embroiled in problems with Cuba. To make matters worse, Allende, in the words of Kissinger, desired to “undermine U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere by violence if necessary.” Kissinger’s concerns with Salvador Allende’s intentions prove problematic, when compared with the statements of the U.S. ambassador to Chile. In January of 1970 Edward Korry, the U.S ambassador to Chile, told the Nixon Administration that the dangers Chile posed to the United States were greatly exaggerated. “I see little that will endanger U.S. real interests in the country, in the area, or in the hemisphere.” Kissinger’s attitudes toward Chilean government officials also indicate a level of arrogance. In a meeting with Gabriel Valdes, the Chilean foreign minister, Kissinger stated that, “Nothing important can come from the South…The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, and crosses over to Washington.” Valdes replied to Kissinger’s comments with, “Mr. Kissinger, you know nothing of the South.” Kissinger then rudely ended the conversation with, “And I don’t care.”

Despite Kissinger’s comments that the Southern hemisphere was irrelevant in world affairs, the Nixon Administration clearly took note of what was transpiring in Chile. Allende’s promises to nationalize the Chilean copper mines and other assets unnerved White House officials. American businesses within Chile (particularly in the copper industry) quickly developed a sense of fear that if Allende were to win, they would lose all they had worked for.

It was under these circumstances that the Nixon Administration decided to act. President Nixon authorized the CIA to provide any needed support to oppose Allende. This entailed monetary aid given to Allende’s opponents. The aid given to Allende’s opponents was in response to the alleged aid given to Allende from Cuba. The CIA had reported that Cuba had pumped $350,000 into the Allende campaign, and that Fidel Castro himself was helping to lead the charge to get Allende elected. For the United States, it seemed as though Chile was the stage for a much greater, and on-going fight with Communism.

Despite the efforts of the CIA and other U.S. officials, Salvador Allende was democratically elected the president of Chile on September 4, 1970. The official election results gave Allende 36% of the vote, while Alessandri gained 34% and Tomic 27%. Regardless of the fact that Allende had won in a constitutionally and democratically sound election, the Nixon Administration still saw his elections as, “a challenge to our national interest.” The mere thought that a second Cuba could be on the horizon caused U.S. officials to find another solution to the Chilean crisis. As Henry Kissinger stated, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

It was under these circumstances that the Nixon Administration and the CIA corroborated with Chilean officials to seek an alternative to Allende. Initially, it was hoped that a loophole in the Chilean Constitution would provide the answer. According to the Chilean Constitution, any president elected without a majority (51%) had to be elected in the Chilean Congress. Tradition had always obligated the Congress to affirm the winner of the popular vote, but under these circumstances, the U.S. hoped to change precedence. The plan called for the Chilean Congress to elect the runner up (Alessandri) to the Presidency. Alessandri would then step down, and another election (one in which former president Eduardo Frei would be eligible for) would be held. The United States banked on the hope that Frei’s popularity, coupled with U.S. backing, would carry him past Allende in the new elections. President Nixon justified the U.S. response by pointing out the fact that Allende had only been elected by 1/3 of the popular vote. Nixon also stated that the U.S. had every right to conduct secret operations in other nations to protect U.S. interests, since the Soviets were doing the same thing. Despite the intentions of the United States, Soviets, and Cubans, the fact remains that nobody seemed to care that the Chilean people had voted democratically.

It is strange even today to think that the United State, a nation that presumably devotes all its efforts to defend democracy and liberty for all, would go to such great lengths to suppress that very process in Chile. In his memoirs, President Nixon explained this by stating the following:

We live in a far from ideal world. As long as Communists supply external funds to support political parties, factions or individuals in other countries, I believe the U.S. can and should do the same and do it secretly so that it can be effective. Under Communists standards, of morality, governments are meant to be subverted and elections influenced. To me it would have been the height of immorality to allow the Soviets, the Cubans, and other Communist nations to interfere with impunity in free elections while America stayed its hand.
Clearly, Nixon felt justified in impeding a democratic election simply because a rival was involved. This serves as a perfect example of the complexity of U.S. foreign affairs during the Cold War.

Despite the best efforts of U.S. officials to persuade the Chilean Congress not to vote for Allende, the Chilean Congress followed precedent and elected him president. Before his election, however, congress obligated Allende to agree to certain terms that would guarantee the future security of Chilean democracy. In response to his election, the Nixon Administration debated on the proper course of action. Edward Korry, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, had suggested to the White House that a coup involving the Chilean military was a possibility. This excited members of the Nixon Administration, who were still simmering over the Allende election. Korry’s plan called for the CIA to help fund several high-ranking generals in the Chilean Army to organize and overthrow President Allende. Once accomplished, the Chilean government would be able to hold new elections.

Unfortunately for U.S. officials, the plan to overthrow Allende via a military coup was shot down. Korry reported to the White House that most Chilean generals were unwilling to conspire or accept bribes from the United States, and that most generals simply wanted to “adjust” to Allende’s agenda. Rene Schneider, Commanding General of the Army, was a particular problem to the plan. Schneider had promised earlier that any effort of the Congress to disallow Allende the presidency would meet with his disapproval. Schneider also made his stance clear that he strongly supported the Chilean election process, and would not allow anything to interfere with the will of the people. Just a few days after making such comments, General Schneider was killed in an attempted kidnapping. Chilean officials immediately blamed the U.S. and CIA for the assassination, claiming it was backed by U.S. funds. Even though Nixon and Kissinger denied involvement, CIA records indicated that the U.S. did indeed provide weapons and funding. Despite the many efforts of the U.S. to oust Allende, it looked as though he was there to stay.

The reality that Allende was going to maintain his power was almost too much for the White House to bear. Henry Kissinger had even claimed that Allende’s rise to power, “posed for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere.” Kissinger had made it clear to President Nixon that Allende’s victory caused unimaginable “political and psychological losses to the U.S.” Under these circumstances, the Nixon Administration took a hard stance against the Allende government. The U.S. government maintained close contact with Chilean military officials that were against Allende, and adopted strong economic strategies meant to choke the already struggling Chilean economy. American businessmen were warned to stay away, due to the unstable government, and Chile was quickly subjected to economic isolation.

At first Allende’s government gave a glimmer of hope to the Chilean people. During his first year in power the Chilean economy experienced unprecedented growth. Salary readjustment laws put more money in the pockets of Chilean citizens, gross national product surged 8.3%, industrial production soared 12.1%, unemployment fell 8.3%, and inflation dropped dramatically. Much of the sudden economic prosperity can be credited to Allende’s nationalization of the Chilean copper industry.

Chile’s economic prosperity did not last for long. After 1972, inflation began to rise and unemployment returned to previous levels. Allende’s inability to maintain the economic prosperity of 1972 was mostly due to American economic boycotts and a dramatic drop in the price of copper worldwide. The White House received constant information on the Chilean situation and was elated at the fact that Allende’s world seemed to be crumbling. Quickly, the United States moved to capitalize on Chile’s economic misfortune. The CIA dumped more than $6 million dollars to aid Allende’s opponents in the Chilean government, particularly in the military. The U.S. also hoped that the new Chilean Congress would move to impeach Allende based on his recent failures. Though impeachment efforts proved futile, U.S. officials were pleased to learn that many Chilean military officials were considering a coup. The Chilean economy had been pushed to the brink, massive protests had irrupted in the streets, and Allende seemed more like a deer in the headlights than the brave leader Chileans had hoped for.

The end came quickly for Allende. On September 11, 1973, Chilean military forces under the direction of Agusto Pinochet took control of the capital. Allende, who was hunkered down in the Presidential headquarters (La Moneda) gave his final farewell to the nation. Shortly thereafter, Allende found dead. Allegedly, Allende had shot himself with the very rifle given to him by his Cuban hero Fidel Castro. The Nixon Administration responded to the coup by claiming it had no involvement. Henry Kissinger commented that United States, “does not support revolutions as a means of settling disputes.” White House officials gave support for the Pinochet coup, calling the General “mild-mannered, businesslike, hard working, honest and dedicated.” Even when reports that Pinochet had ordered the deaths of thousands of Chilean people, Henry Kissinger claimed that Pinochet was simply dealing with “lingering terrorism.” Instead of being called a ruthless usurper of power, Pinochet was hailed as a patriot, called to protect his mother country. Whether they admit it or not, the Nixon Administration had participated (in one form or another) in the successful overthrow of a democratically elected government, and saw that government replaced with a military dictatorship.

The story of the Chilean coup of 1973 is deeply controversial and complicated. There is no doubt that much of this story is still yet to be unraveled. As time has passed, Chilean people (and people around the world) have divided opinions of Allende, U.S. involvement in Chile, and Pinochet. Some see Allende as a villain, while Pinochet is seen as a liberator. Others see Allende as a martyr and the United States as an evil empire, pushing its agenda on weaker nations. Regardless of personal feelings, the Chilean coup of 1973 serves as a perfect example of the complex world of U.S. foreign policy. The complex world of Chilean politics, the emergence of Allende and his agenda, and the involvement of the United States to protect its interests all molded together to create the coup of 1973. One can only hope that current and future leaders will learn from past events like Chile. Perhaps then we will think twice before getting involved in other nation’s affairs to protect our “interests.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. By Eric Foner. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xxxix, 317).

The years leading up to the American Civil War have been a source of ardent debate for historians. Being able to add clarity to the convoluted labyrinth of Civil War historiography is no small task for any writer. Historian Eric Foner, however, is an exception to that rule. In his book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men Foner effectively provides simple but convincing evidence that adds a new perspective to the critical formative years of the Republican Party, just prior to the commencement of the Civil War. Foner attempts to portray the division between North and South as more than a simple disagreement over political issues, but rather as a passionate and tangible battle between rival moral standards.

Foner’s prose successfully resurrects the underlying tensions that shaped Republican ideology. Foner suggests that the Republican Party eventually grew to see their world dividing into two distinct societies: one agrarian and oppressive, the other industrial and libertarian. As the idea of free labor gained notoriety in the North for being a noble endeavor, slavery was receiving greater condemnation for its barbarity. Foner alludes to this fact when he writes, “If the free labor outlook gave Republicans a model of the good society, it also provided them with a yardstick for judging other social systems, and by this standard, slave society was found woefully wanting” (Pp. 40).

The book’s main strength comes from the author’s analysis of the ideology of free labor. Foner’s opening chapters are almost exclusively dedicated to the Republican Party’s advancement and development of the free labor doctrine. As the economy of the North grew to embrace this new policy on labor, more and more people began to see its benefits. This ideology was then woven into the Republican agenda, which strove to convince the masses of the superiority of a free labor economy. “The economic superiority of free to slave labor became a major argument of the Republicans in their attempt to win northern votes” (Pp. 43). Foner adds further credence to his argument by mentioning the numerous reporters that traveled to the Deep South to bring to light the inferiority of the Southern slave economy (Pp. 46-49). By relating stories of slave oppression, the plight of the poor whites, and the dilapidated nature of Southern infrastructure, the press was able to convince its readers that the economy of the South was morally unacceptable. Northern obsession with free labor, combined with a strong abhorrence of the slave economy, gave Republican politics a strong advantage that propelled their agenda forward.

The development of free labor ideology is a reoccurring theme in this book. Foner uses it to demonstrate just how powerful of a dichotomy there was between the North and South in terms of economics. Foner points out that the Northern economic standard evolved into a moral one, which was in constant conflict with slavery. Foner makes mention that the apparent upward social mobility of the North was of paramount significance, and was one of the primary problems with Southern slavery. “The plight of the poor whites [in the South] was compounded, as Republicans saw it, by their lack of opportunity to rise in the social scale” (Pp. 47). Foner does not neglect the perspective of the South, however, which maintained that, “there must be a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgeries of life” (Pp. 66). Clearly the economic divisions depicted by Foner had evolved into much more than a simple dispute, and had in fact become a passionate moral conflict.

The ideology of free labor is not the only issue addressed in this book. Foner also gives a lot of attention to the historical development of the Republican Party. In the middle and end parts of his book, he stresses the fact that Republicans were forced to incorporate a large conglomeration of politically diverse groups into their fold. Foner makes it clear that the Republican integration of abolitionists, ex-Whigs, ex-Democrats, and others was a slow process that required adaptation and compromise. The radically charged viewpoints of many within the party (Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens to name only a couple) required time to adapt to the more conservative perspectives within the party. As Foner claims, there existed a large number of conservatives that were not as charged over the slavery issue as the radicals (Pp. 187).

One of the best aspects of Foner’s inquiry into the development of the Republican Party comes from his chapter on Salmon Chase. In it, Foner demonstrates how Chase was able to effectively weave slavery into a political issue. By doing so, abolitionists and other radicals rallied around the idea, creating an agenda of zero tolerance. As different factions came together under the banner of the Republican Party, slavery became its main political issue. Foner adds credibility to this argument by effectively demonstrating how the conservative elements within the party began to see slavery as an assault to their ideology of free labor. By doing so, Foner reveals how those less interested in the slavery issue were persuaded to believe that slavery presented a legitimate threat to their way of life.

The appeal of this work should thus be seen from the perspective of Civil War historiography. As a result of his research, Foner has provided us with an additional way of understanding the events that led to the Civil War. By effectively exposing the importance of free labor ideology in the North, and its introduction and evolution in the Republican Party, the reader is able to gain a sense of the moral dilemma that existed between North and South. Foner’s insight into the various political factions that made up the Republican Party provide a rich and sophisticated view of the events that drove the North to strongly oppose the South. Though written from a predominantly Northern perspective, this book gives brilliant insight into the origins of the Civil War.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What My Kids do With My Phone

Some "Home Videos" by
Jaxson and Zakary

So today I was surprised to notice that the memory card on my phone was near capacity. I don't download much onto my phone so I couldn't figure out what was taking up all of my memory space. After some detective work on the matter I discovered that there was a substantial amount of pictures and video that I was not aware of. What kind of pictures and video you ask? Take a look:

According to Jaxson, this is "Iron Man." Much to my delight, my kids are interested in "The Avengers" in a big way. Our house is literally covered with Iron Man, Captain America and Incredible Hulk drawings.
Here are some of the many Lego soldiers that cover our floor on a daily basis:
Spider Man protects our house day and night.
I'm not even sure where he got these teeth.

And here are some examples of what was eating up most of my phone's memory. There were probably 15-20 videos just like these.

Part I:


Part III:

Historiography of Bernal Diaz and the Conquest of "New Spain"

490 years ago, a group of ambitious Spaniards ascended the southeastern slope of the Sierra de Ahualco, a large mountain that overlooked the lush Mexican landscape. Upon reaching the stony top, these men gazed upon a civilization unlike anything that existed in Europe. Tenochtitlan, the native “Aztec” people called it, was a prosperous city nestled neatly into the beauty of the Mexican valley. The panorama of cultivated fields, irrigated by complex water networks was no doubt a charming sight to behold. Towering buildings adorned with gold glistened in the sunlight, enhancing the Spaniards thirst for plunder. Led by the ambitious Hernan Cortes, these Spaniards would stop at nothing in order to seize the riches that lay before them. Unfortunately for the people of Tenochtitlan, these first "explorers" from Spain would turn out to be the beginning of the end for their civilization. Their subsequent conquest and subjugation to the Spanish eventually led to the demise of the Aztec world and the continued rise of Spanish colonization in the "New World."

Over the years the story of Hernan Cortes has been both praised and scrutinized by a wide range of critics. Even his contemporaries were divided over the achievements Cortes had accomplished. Many considered him to be one of Spain’s greatest villains, while others were quick to call him a national hero. Amongst those that rose to defend the acts of Cortes and the conquest of "New Spain" was a poor peasant Spaniard turned conquistador named Bernal Diaz del Castillo. As a loyal soldier in Cortes’s army, Diaz became an eyewitness to the Spanish conquests of Mexico. In the latter years of his life, Diaz wrote his life experiences as a conquistador in his infamous history, The Conquest of New Spain. Though not always kind to Cortes, Diaz gives a predominantly favorable view of Spain’s most legendary conquistador, and the actions of the men that followed him. Over the years, however, the history of Bernal Diaz has been interpreted from many different perspectives. To understand the historiography of Bernal Diaz, a general inquiry into his motivations for exploration, combined with an analysis of how Diaz’s record was perceived by his contemporaries vs. its current historical significance, are essential components in appreciating the historical significance of Diaz’s work.

To understand the record of Bernal Diaz, one must first understand his motivations for becoming a conquistador. Spanish society in the sixteenth century was a world deeply divided by social and economic inequality. A massive number of Spaniards lived in the depths of poverty, expecting little chance to improve their social or economic status. As J.S. Elliot points out, "Cortes, along with the vast majority of explorers, belonged to an overpopulated social class for whom Spain had little to offer." Bernal Diaz also belonged to this low social class. Born in Medina del Campo, Diaz’s childhood was full of scenes of poverty and violence. Having been raised in such an environment, Diaz became acclimated to many of the violent struggles he would face in Mexico. Like Cortes, Diaz longed for the opportunity to make something of himself. The lure of New World conquest became the opportunity he longed for. Historian Rolena Adorno points out that for Diaz, "His primary goal was to achieve economic prosperity for himself and his heirs, and he was fairly successful."

Diaz, however, was not motivated exclusively by economic factors. Upon his arrival to the "New World," Diaz was overcome by the religious fervor that infected most of the Spanish. "Our desire was to throw their [the Aztecs] idols out of the temples, for they were evil and led them astray...we gave them a cross, which would always aid them, bring them good harvests and save their souls." The Spanish were easily able to justify these actions of religious bigotry and hatred. Since 1493 the Spanish (along with other European nations) lived under the delusion that the New World was in fact divinely theirs. With the discovery of the New World, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal decree that promised Spain all the undiscovered lands 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. As a result, Spain was guaranteed its "legitimate" claim to colonize the New World. Queen Isabella even declared the inhabitants of the New World to be her "subjects and vassals."

With such powerful religious conviction behind them, Cortes and his band of soldiers had all the justification they needed to rationalize their brutality towards the natives. Seeing that the Aztecs "eat the flesh of roasted legs of Indians and the arms of soldiers”, Cortes and his men felt it their Christian duty to "purify" the heathen natives and their lands. Backed by the threats of execution, Cotes and his men obligated many native communities to "give up human sacrifice and robbery and the foul practice of sodomy, and to cease worshiping their accursed idols," or, "be absolutely prepared to fight and die." As a result, entire villages of natives were annihilated. As Diaz wrote, "We found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in them who could not move away. Their excretions were the sort of filth that thin swine pass which have been fed on nothing but grass."

The earliest trends in the historiography of Bernal Diaz and the conquest of Mexico have often praised the conquistadors for their remarkable bravery. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, William H. Prescott published his now infamous book, History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru in which he stated, "The subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers...has the air of romance rather than sober history." Prescott interpreted the works of these early conquistadors (including Diaz) in a quasi-poetic fashion. Though occasionally critical of the conquistadors, Prescott gives a great amount of praise to the conquistadors in his narrative. Prescott also credits Diaz for his objective account of the conquest of Mexico. Many of these early interpretations of Spanish colonization were deeply influenced by a Western superiority complex that negated the concerns of native people. Whether in the fictional works of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or in the words of the conquistadors themselves, European supremacy was asserted to the highest degree.

Bernal Diaz’s work was also rarely scrutinized. Though not published until after his death, Diaz’s account of the conquest of Mexico was taken virtually at face value by the majority of European readers. Even William Prescott rarely challenged the accuracy or prejudice of Diaz. After all, Diaz was "among the writers who defined what was unique about Spain’s early experience in America." His work was seen as central to the historiography of Cortes and Mexican conquest. Questioning Diaz’s work seemed like a ridiculous suggestion for the early scholars of Spanish colonialism.

For the most part, the history of Bernal Diaz remained unchallenged even into the early parts of the twentieth century. Though often harangued on various mundane issues, Diaz’s history rarely received any direct attacks. The only disputations over Diaz’s history centered on various comments that were found to be, "exaggerated or misplaced." The only major issue in the historiography of Bernal Diaz had to do with his clash against the records of Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco Lopez de Gomara. Both Las Casas and Gomara asserted that the actions of Hernan Cortes and his soldiers were utterly reprehensible, due to their barbaric acts of cruelty during the conquest of Mexico. Diaz’s record, however, seemed to eclipse the histories of Las Casas and Gomara by suggesting that the acts of Mexican conquest were never as destructive as some suggested. In his record, Diaz repeatedly mentioned how he and the other men "tired of war," almost suggesting that they fought because they had no other choice. Diaz also tried to diffuse the notion that he and his fellow soldiers reaped huge economic gains from their plunder. "We captains and soldiers were all somewhat sad when we saw how little gold there was and how poor and mean our shares would be." Of course Diaz neglected to mention the fact that he and others received enormous estates, titles and slaves upon the completion of their murderous rampage.

Recent scholarly inquiry into Bernal Diaz and the conquest of Mexico has made some significant changes to its historiography. As stated before, for centuries the conquistadors rarely received any direct challenge to their legacy. It was not until the latter parts of the twentieth century that the first major attacks to the historiography of the conquistadors were made. The initial question historians made concerning the conquest of Spain was, "is the conquest of Mexico justified?" For the first time historians began to read the words of Diaz in a new light. Instead of interpreting their actions through the lens of European prejudice, the conquistadors were exposed for what they truly were. The conquest of the Aztec civilization was no longer appreciated for its ability to spread Christianity or subdue the "heathens." Instead of being honored for their bravery in battle or glorified for their defense of Christianity, men like Bernal Diaz were recognized primarily for their greed. Though Cortes and his men, "delighted in their new great fortune," which came at the expense of the native people, and after "all the gold and silver and jewels in Mexico had been added together," the conquistadors still could not escape the fact that they were, in the end, thieves and murderers. For the first time, Diaz’s account was subjected to scholarly investigation and genuine criticism. Historians began to suggest that much of Diaz’s work was, "an attempt to keep abreast of the paste of events that profoundly threatened his economic well being." In other words, much of what Diaz wrote was done to defend his social and economic status, not to mention his reputation.

To be certain, Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain has played an essential role in the overall historiography of Mexican conquest. It has provided us with an eyewitness account of the destruction, subjugation and assimilation of the native people in and around Tenochtitlan. Though clearly prejudicial and xenophobic in his approach to this historical event, Diaz’s record still remains an important (and hotly debated) primary source document of Spanish conquest. As the interpretation of Diaz’s work has changed over the years, scholars have been able to make significant changes to the historiography of Spanish conquest. Instead of being seen as stalwart Christian heroes, the greedy motives of the conquistadors have been exposed, and the true nature of Spanish conquest revealed. One can only imagine what future historical inquiry will reveal.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century

Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century. By Benjamin Valentino. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 253).

The twentieth century was the bloodiest in all of human history. The consequences of two world wars left a haunting impression upon the millions of survivors, who became reluctant witnesses to the atrocities of modern warfare. Along with the millions of war victims is another body of mass casualties that is often forgotten in the muddle of twentieth century history. The approximately 60-150 million victims of genocide across the world stand as a monument to the carnage of numerous regimes that embraced mass killing as a necessity. In his book, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century, author Benjamin Valentino attempts to address the causes and motivations that have inspired genocide in the twentieth century. By essentially addressing genocide as nothing more than a “powerful political and military tool,” Valentino provides the reader with a detailed perspective into the motives behind genocide.

First off, it is important to recognize the fact that Valentino’s work avoids a discussion of semantics when dealing with the definition of genocide. Instead, the author’s book centers on “mass killings” of more than fifty thousand in number (Pp. 3-4). In so doing, Valentino broadens the scope of his argument by including numerous mass killings that are often ignored in the traditional study of genocide. Valentino also argues that the traditional understanding of genocide as being motivated by “severe ethnic, racial, national, or religious divisions” does not hold up, since “some of the bloodiest mass killings in history have occurred in relatively homogeneous societies” (Pp. 2). Valentino continues his assault on the traditional historiography of genocide by also suggesting that the “traditional studies of genocide have tended to diminish the role of leadership on the grounds that the interests and ideas of a few elites cannot account for the participation of the rest of society in the violence” (Pp. 2). Instead, Valentino proposes in his research that mass killing “occurs when leaders believe that their victims pose a threat that can be countered only by removing them from society or by permanently destroying their ability to organize” (Pp. 5).

To defend his thesis that leaders are responsible for mass killing as opposed to the masses, Valentino provides a detailed comparison between several similar regimes. For example, Valentino makes special mention of the racial tensions that permeated both German and South African society, along with the various forms of intolerance that covered Asia After briefly discussing the backgrounds of these regimes, Valentino poses a question to his audience: Why does mass killing occur in only some of these regimes, which, on the surface, appear to be very similar? Valentino then answers his question by suggesting that a cohesive leadership of elites, with an objective to consolidate their power, is the catalyst for mass killing. By pointing out that perpetrators of mass killing see their actions as, “a rational way to counter threats or implement certain types of ideologies,” Valentino discards the assumption that these regimes kill simply for the sake of killing.

To support his claims, Valentino focuses on three distinct groups of mass killings: communist, ethnic and counterguerrilla mass killings. In the first of these three classifications (which Valentino claims is responsible for the largest number of mass killings), Valentino focuses on the communist regimes of China, the Soviet Union and Cambodia. Valentino then points out the fact that these regimes have resorted to mass killings in an effort to secure that their social changes are met. As Valentino points out, “the effort to engineer utopia has been the justification for some of the world’s most horrendous crimes” (Pp. 92). For communist regimes to secure this “utopia,” they are often required to redistribute land and wealth, which is understandably a difficult change for the masses to accept. For this reason, communist regimes have embarked on some of the worst mass killing policies in world history. As Valentino points out, “The history of communism in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia is a powerful demonstration of the degree to which historical accidents, serendipity, and the power of individual personalities can determine the rise of extremely radical and violent groups’ (Pp. 150).

In his second group, ethnic mass killings, Valentino pays special attention to the Nazi regime and its motivations for committing to a policy of ethnic mass killings. Valentino emphasizes the fact that the Nazi regime (along with other regimes that are guilty of mass killings) had a specific strategic goal in mind, as opposed to the traditional assumption that they were simply out for blood. As Valentino writes, “Ethnic mass killings, especially the Holocaust, have tended to be portrayed as little more than killing for killing’s sake…The strategic approach, however, suggests that ethnic mass killing occurs when leaders come to believe that large-scale violence is the most practical way to accomplish a policy of ethnic cleansing” (Pp. 155). By focusing on the ethnic cleansing of Turkish Armenia, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda, Valentino provides his audience with ample insight into the evolution of how these regimes came to embrace mass killings as the only plausible solution to their respective ethnic dilemmas.

In the third group of mass killings addressed in his work, counterguerilla mass killings, Valentino discusses how a number of guerilla insurgencies (particularly in Guatemala and Afghanistan) have compelled governments to adopt a policy of mass killing. Valentino points out the fact that these forms of mass killing often come about not because an army becomes undisciplined or fed-up with the guerilla opposition it faces. Instead, Valentino suggests that counterguerilla forces often see their efforts as being “positive policies designed to improve the lives of the civilian population and draw support away from guerillas” (Pp. 199). In essence, the justification for such actions embraces the notion that one must kill in order to save.

Though often contrary to the traditional understanding of genocide, Valentino’s work provides us with a unique perspective into the causes and motivations behind mass killings. By suggesting that mass killings are primarily the result of an elite leadership, Valentino also proposes that we can better prevent these atrocities from happening again, by being proactive against regimes that have committed to the rapid disposal of a specific group from their society. An objective insight into the causes of mass killing, which Valentino considers to be born out of a political motivation to eliminate a perceived threat as opposed to simple hatred, may serve to prevent future atrocities from ever happening again

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Einstein Was Wrong?!?

One of my favorite organizations to follow is CERN: the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN, which is best known for its studies with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has afforded physicists a deeper understanding of our universe and its origins. And though I am FAR from understanding everything going on with CERN (I'm no scientist), I have enjoyed reading about some of their incredible discoveries.

One of CERN's biggest discoveries has to do with neutrinos. Neutrinos are one of the fundamental subatomic particles that make up our universe. They function somewhat like an electron except for the fact that they cannot carry a charge. While conducting studies on neutrinos in the Large Hadron Collider (which essentially accelerates particles to the speed of light and then forces them to collide), scientists discovered something remarkable: neutrinos can apparently travel faster than light. From the Associated Press:
Scientists at the world's largest physics lab said Thursday they have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than light. That's something that according to Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity — the famous E (equals) mc2 equation — just doesn't happen.

"The feeling that most people have is this can't be right, this can't be real," said James Gillies, a spokesman for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, outside the Swiss city of Geneva.

Gillies told The Associated Press that the readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.


Scientists agree if the results are confirmed, that it would force a fundamental rethink of the laws of nature.

Einstein's special relativity theory that says energy equals mass times the speed of light squared underlies "pretty much everything in modern physics," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment. "It has worked perfectly up until now."

"This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully," said Ellis.
And though this discovery probably doesn't stand out to most people it is a massive discovery for physicists, for it challenges one of the fundamental theories of Albert Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity.

One of the fundamental teachings of Einstein's Theory of Relativity is that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light (approximately 186,287 miles per second). This is important because Special Relativity teaches that time is relative to one's motion and position in space. Simply put, the faster a person is moving, the slower he/she will perceive time.

So if neutrinos really do travel faster than light does that mean they are traveling back in time? I won't even pretend to think that I understand physics well enough to answer this question. But what everyone, expert or not, is recognizing is the fact that if this discovery is true, our understanding of the universe will once again have to change. It will force physicists to reevaluate the notion that light is the "speed limit" of the universe.

But before we all rush out and buy our Deloreans and Flux Capacitors don't get too excited. As is the case with any major alleged scientific discovery, skeptics have questioned these findings. As one physicist states:
The things you need to know about this result are:
  • It’s enormously interesting if it’s right.
  • It’s probably not right.
By the latter point I don’t mean to impugn the abilities or honesty of the experimenters, who are by all accounts top-notch people trying to do something very difficult. It’s just a very difficult experiment, and given that the result is so completely contrary to our expectations, it’s much easier at this point to believe there is a hidden glitch than to take it at face value. All that would instantly change, of course, if it were independently verified by another experiment; at that point the gleeful jumping up and down will justifiably commence. This isn’t one of those annoying “three-sigma” results that sits at the tantalizing boundary of statistical significance. The OPERA folks are claiming a six-sigma deviation from the speed of light.

But that doesn’t mean it’s overwhelmingly likely that the result is real; it just means it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that the result is simply a statistical fluctuation. There is another looming source of possible error: a “systematic effect,” i.e. some unknown miscalibration somewhere in the experiment or analysis pipeline. (If you are measuring something incorrectly, it doesn’t matter that you measure it very carefully.) In particular, the mismatch between the expected and observed timing amounts to tens of nanoseconds; but any individual “event” takes the form of a pulse that is spread out over thousands of nanoseconds. Extracting the signal is a matter of using statistics over many such events — a tricky business.
In other words, verifying that neutrinos are traveling faster than 186,000 miles per second is a difficult thing to do, even with all of the technology and expertise at CERN. Despite these difficulties we can all rest assured that the good folks at CERN will do all they can to get this right. If the finding is true, then we can look forward to improving our understanding of the universe. If not, it just confirms that we already are on the right track. Either way, this alleged discovery does prove one thing right beyond a shadow of a doubt: science is alive and well in our day and age!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jeanne d'Arc: Hero or Heretic?

Yesterday marked the 600th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc), the infamous French peasant girl who defied the English. Joan of Arc's life story is fascinating to say the least. As a poor daughter of a peasant family in eastern France, Jeanne's life should have come and gone without so much as a footnote in the history books. So how did such a young, poor and obscure female of the 15th century become such a powerful and influential hero?

It is difficult to say. If we asked Jeanne herself, the answer would no doubt be "because it was the will of God." After all, Jeanne claimed that her "calling" came as a result of several heavenly manifestations throughout her childhood (beginning at age 12). She remained steadfast in that assertion throughout the remainder of her short life, even in the face of execution. As she stated during her interrogation and trial:

I know well that that which is contained in my case has come to me by the Commandment of God; what I affirm in the case is, that I have acted by the order of God: it is impossible for me to say otherwise. In case the Church should prescribe the contrary, I should not refer to any one in the world, but to God alone, Whose Commandment I always follow.
This is a remarkable declaration considering the fact that Jeanne d'Arc was all of nineteen years of age. To be a 15th century female of humble roots and to stand defiant against one's accusers was almost unheard of. And though inspiring to say the least, this was the least of Jeanne d'Arc's accomplishments

With the sporadic conflicts that came as a result of the Hundred Years' War, France was thrown into crisis mode, as rival French lords and invading English Kings jockeyed for control of the French crown. These conflicts left the French countryside nearly destitute, as English forces employed Chevauchée tactics that ravaged poor villages. One of these villages was a small northeastern community called Domrémy, which just happened to be home to a young married couple named Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée. The couple owned about 50 acres of farmland, placing them on the higher end of the French peasantry. The family was fairly well off, as Jacques was able to supplement his farming income as a tax collector of sorts. In addition, Jacques' post also included making provisions for the villages defense. Perhaps this is where his famous daughter gained her knowledge of warfare?

Regardless of where or how Jeanne d'Arc gained her military prowess one fact is undeniable: this young peasant girl was a genius. The sheer fact that she was able to gain a command with a group of male French soldiers is astounding by itself, but when we also factor in her generalship on the battle field, Jeanne's brilliance comes to life. Not only did Jeanne successfully predict a the outcomes to key battles but she was also able to effectively lead a number of successful military campaigns. As historian Stephen Richey states: "She proceeded to lead the army in an astounding series of victories that reversed the tide of the war."

Whether Jeanne was an actual battle commander in war, a standard bearer that inspired the army, or a combination of the two has been debated by historians for centuries. There is no doubt that Jeanne participated in a number of war councils with other military commanders, who resented her age, gender (which she tried to hide) and her lack of nobility. Nevertheless, virtually everyone recognized Jeanne's astounding talent, foresight, and apparent divine sanctioning. To many of her French colleagues, Jeanne was a prophetess of sorts, who had a direct line of contact to God himself. And in the wake of defeat after defeat at the hands of the English, anyone, even a young peasant girl claiming divine revelation, was a welcomed change. Her presence brought with it a change in the war. As Jeanne d'Arc herself stated:

Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.
But not everyone was as quick to revere Jeanne d'Arc's supposed clairvoyance. The English, who had been on the receiving end of Jeanne's military brilliance/inspiration, denounced her as a heretic. After her capture and eventual "sale" to the English, Jeanne d'Arc was put on trial in what became a corrupt show court. Inquisitors tried to pin the French peasant down on a number of theological issues, but were cleverly rebuffed by Jeanne's keen intellect. In one of the more popular exchanges, Jeanne was asked if "she knew she was in God's grace", to which she answered "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me." The question was meant as a trap for Jeanne. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God's grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt (her answer was similar in tone to the one given by Jesus Christ to the Pharisees in Matthew, chapter 21:25).

Jeanne's response left inquisitors dumbfounded and forced them to convict her of heresy on bogus charges relating to her dressing as a man. Some scholars have suggested that Jeanne's apparent habit of dressing in men's clothing may have been the result of transgender issues. This is unlikely, however, due to the fact that Jeanne did so only to infiltrate enemy lines and to keep herself safe while in the army. In addition, her choice to dress in men's clothing while imprisoned was likely for protection. Instead of being placed under the care of nuns (which was customary for female prisoners), Jeanne was placed in a prison guarded by English male soldiers. Needless to say, these soldiers took advantage of the female guest who was at their mercy. Dressing in men's clothing of the time afforded Jeanne more protection from rape. As historian Robert Wirth explains:

[W]itnesses related that Joan of Arc had told them that she had worn, and had resumed, this clothing and kept the hosen and doublet "firmly fastened and tied together" because this provided her with the only means she had of protecting herself against the incidences of attempted rape which her English guards were inflicting on her. This description will be immediately understandable if one is familiar with this type of clothing. Based on a description in the Condemnation transcript itself as well as period illustrations of the general type of garment in question, her outfit was equipped with two layers of hosen securely fastened to the doublet, the inner layer being waist-high conjoined woolen hosen attached to the doublet by fully twenty cords, each cord tied into three eyelets apiece (two on the hosen and one on the doublet), for a total of forty attachment points on the inner layer of hosen. The second layer, which was made of rugged leather, seems to have been attached by yet another set of cords. Once this outfit was thus fastened together by dozens of cords connecting both layers to the doublet, it would be a substantial undertaking for someone to try to pull off these garments, especially if she was struggling.
Regardless of the practicality of wearing men's clothing for a woman in Jeanne's position, English inquisitors found her guilty of heresy. And even though she was technically justified by law to dress as a man for her protection and to preserve her chastity, Jeanne was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Her last words were (allegedly) "I am not afraid. I was born to do this" (again, an incredible declaration from a nineteen-year-old peasant girl).

It is probably a foregone conclusion that much of Jeanne d'Arc's legacy as a hero of France rests with the fact that France was able to defeat the English and reclaim the lands they had lost. Had England emerged victorious, it is likely that Jeanne's legacy would be quite different; a heretic rather than a hero prophetess. And we can't ignore the fact that the multiple conflicts we now call the Hundred Years' War lead to the development of early French and English nationalism, thus exalting Jeanne d'Arc to the status of a national symbol. But regardless of these facts, the remarkable life of Jeanne d'Arc is an astonishing example of unshakable faith, remarkable bravery and undaunted determination. Her life story makes even the most skeptical person wonder if maybe she really did have a divine call from heaven. Whether or not such is the case, Jeanne d'Arc remains one of the most fascinating figures in all of human history.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The "Humanity" of George Albert Smith

Every couple of years or so, the Curriculum Committee for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) presents to the general membership of the church a new study manual to be used in various church classes. For the past two years the church has used "Gospel Principles" as its official study manual. Before that, the church spent two years on "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith." And in 2012, the church has produced "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith" as the official text for this year's study.

I'll be honest, spending the last two years on "Gospel Principles" was a bit of a personal drag. I just couldn't get into it. With that said, I am VERY excited about this year's manual. George Albert Smith has been my favorite church president for as long as I can remember. Ever since my youth, George Albert Smith has stood out to me. I recall learning about his personal creed and hearing stories of how he helped to bring the church into modernity in a number of ways. For example, G.A. Smith was a passionate supporter of the Boy Scout's program, and helped to integrate it into the Young Men's program of the church (he was awarded the Silver Buffalo in 1934, which is the highest honor in the Boy Scout's program). Smith was also a major history buff and helped to organize the Utah Pioneer Trail and Landmarks Association, was elected six times as vice-president of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, and dedicated the "This is the Place" monument and the centennial celebration of the Mormon Pioneer's arrival into the Salt Lake Valley. In addition, G.A. Smith was an ardent supporter of Teddy Roosevelt's "progressivism" (a fact that I am sure makes Glenn Beck sick to his stomach) and was a vocal advocate for the blind (he helped to push forward the first ever braille Book of Mormon in 1935). G.A. Smith was also the first president of the church to not practice polygamy. All of these facts and accomplishments helped G.A. Smith to lead the Mormon church into the world of modernity.

And though I greatly admire G.A. Smith for all of these (and other) accomplishments, this is not what makes him my favorite church president. What I admire so much about G.A. Smith was his "humanity." Don't get me wrong, I recognize that all church presidents have/had their human side as well. However, G.A. Smith, for whatever reason, seems more "human" and "approachable" than the others. After all, G.A. Smith wore his emotions out on his sleeves for everyone to see. He was an incredibly sensitive man who internalized the world and the struggles that people faced. He took it personally when he encountered individuals who were hurting or suffering, and did all that he could to assist those in need. He was a staunch supporter of the Church Welfare program and did more to advance it than perhaps any other church authority. For example, at the conclusion of WWII, G.A. Smith initiated one of the largest relief efforts in church history. A massive surplus of food, equipment and other relief supplies were made ready and available for the destitute people of Europe who had been left in ruins. When U.S. President Harry S. Truman finally called on the church for assistance, he was astonished to discover that the church was already prepared. All that was needed was to know when and where to ship the goods. Even in the aftermath of war, G.A. Smith understood the worth of every human soul. As he stated:

Let us extend kindness and consideration to all who need it, not forgetting those who are bereft; and in our time of rejoicing for peace, let us not forget those who have given their loved ones as part of the price of peace.
Not only did G.A. Smith preach tolerance and love for those of different (once enemy) nations, but he taught tolerance and acceptance of every member of the human race. G.A. Smith vehemently opposed racial prejudice and vocally denounced the KKK. He made efforts to reconcile bitter rival nations by reintroducing missionary work into parts of Europe and by reconciling church members of those nations. As he stated at the conclusion of WWII:

The best evidence of gratitude at this time is to do all we can to bring happiness to this sad world, for we are all our Father’s children, and we are all under the obligation of making this world a happier place for our having lived in it.
In short, George Albert Smith loved and empathized with humanity. He believed in the goodness of all people. It therefore comes as no surprise that the majority of the lessons in this year's G.A. Smith manual center on topics like "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself", "The Power of Kindness", and "Of You it is Required to Forgive." After all, these were the fundamental themes of his personal life creed:

I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor.

I would visit the sick and afflicted and inspire in them a desire for faith to be healed.

I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind.

I would seek out the erring one and try to win him back to a righteous and a happy life.

I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.

I would live with the masses and help to solve their problems that their earth life may be happy.

I would avoid the publicity of high positions and discourage the flattery of thoughtless friends.

I would not knowingly wound the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend.

I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the successes of all the children of my Heavenly Father.

I would not be an enemy to any living soul.
But for a man who could empathize so well with the plight of humanity, George Albert Smith wasn't without his struggles. Aside from the many physical ailments that effected him throughout his life (vision problems, stomach ailments, and lupus erythematosus which eventually caused his death), G.A. Smith was also plagued by ailments of the psyche. As the good folks at the By Common Consent blog point out, George Albert Smith was a deeply emotionally afflicted man. We can say with almost absolute certainty that G.A. Smith suffered from some sort of chronic depression and anxiety disorder. There were multiple times in his life when he was rendered incapacitated by overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, guilt and sadness. His responsibilities as a church apostle often exacerbated his condition, as he found it very difficult to deal with the problems of those he encountered. As he confided to a local state president:

[Even] when things are normal my nerves are not very strong
and when I see other people in sorrow and depressed I am easily affected.
Even members of George Albert Smith's family could tell that something was wrong. As BYU Professor Mary Jane Woodger points out:

George Albert’s “good work ethic” exposed him to additional pressures because of an apparent “personality style that lent itself to hypersensitivity,” manifest in a preoccupation with “what he ate along with a lot of pressure he seems to have felt to measure up to other’s expectations.”


Grandchild George Albert Smith V suggests that his grandfather struggled with depression, feeling incompetent, and being overwhelmed. There were times when “he just could not pull it all together.” Another granddaughter, Shauna Lucy Stewart Larsen, who lived in George Albert’s home for twelve years as a child, remembers
that “when there was great, tremendous stress, mostly [of] an emotional kind, it took its toll and he would literally have to go to bed for several days.”
As someone who has personally struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety I can empathize with G.A. Smith's feelings. Depression and anxiety are real struggles that can render an otherwise normal and successful person completely vacant. It is a real struggle that you don't simply "pray away" or "get over." Unfortunately, too many people (even today) don't understand this fact, and in G.A. Smith's day there was even less tolerance for such conditions. As Professor Mary Jane Woodger notes, G.A. Smith's uncle, Heber J. Sears, demonstrated the ignorance of his day when he addressed his nephew's bout with depression:

For Heaven’s sake George -- side step or step backward not forward. Cheat the asylum of a victim. Dump your responsibility for a while before the hearse dumps your bones.
And though I am sure that Mr. Sears was only trying to be helpful, this type of "cowboy up" response is typical of many who don't suffer from or understand the realities of depression. This is especially true of times past when psychology was either non-existent or still in its infancy. I have blogged before about the "melancholy" nature of Meriwether Lewis (which in reality was probably bipolar disorder) and how it eventually drove him to suicide. And most people are aware of Abraham Lincoln's deep struggles with depression. These problems are nothing new to humanity, we just happen to recognize them now.

The fact of the matter is that humans are complex creatures who are, as a result of genetic, environmental and other factors, often susceptible to a wide variety of physical and mental struggles. Yes, even prophets (who are only humans) fall victim to such things, and why should any of us assume differently? Nobody seems to make a big deal of a church president who suffers the infirmities of age, sickness or injury. Why would mental illness make any kind of difference?

The real beauty of the life of George Albert Smith is the fact that he overcame these ailments and insecurities to change the world for the better. I think that the best example of George Albert Smith's "humanity" and goodness can be found in his handling of the "Third Conventionist" controversy. Most Mormon members are probably unfamiliar with this controversy, since it took place in the 1930s. The Third Convention controversy was a case in which a number of Mexican Mormons essentially chose to break off from the church and establish their own autonomy. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 had created a strict separation of church and state and isolated Mexican Mormons from church leaders in Salt lake city. In consequence, many Mexican members, led by District President Abel Páez, requested that the church call only full-blooded Mexican citizens to positions of authority within the country. When rebuffed by the church, these members elected to break away and created the "Third Convention", which held meetings, carried out missionary work and many other regular church functions without church approval.

Needless to say, this upset a large number of church authorities, not to mention many loyal Mexican Mormons. Many within the "Third Convention" were excommunicated in the wake of the escalating tensions between Salt Lake City and Mexico. Church leadership scoffed at the blatant apostasy that was taking place right under their noses. President George Albert Smith, however, had a different opinion. After making a trip to Mexico (the first church president to do so) President Smith met with "Third Convention" leaders and listened to their complaints. No judgements were passed, no fingers were pointed. As had become G.A. Smith's style he simply showed love and empathy for the people. In the end, President Smith reversed the excommunications and most of the Third Convention's followers were welcomed back as brothers and sisters of the church. Sure, President Smith was more than justified to spew out fire and brimstone rhetoric and to rebuke the Third Convention members for their betrayal of the faith. President Smith could have declared the Third Convention a heresy and made them an example to the church of the consequences of apostasy. Heck, President Smith could have avoided the trip to Mexico altogether, kept the excommunications in place, and simply ignored the situation. All of those courses of action would have been justifiable. Only one problem: they weren't what Jesus Christ would do, and President Smith knew it. Today Mexico is the second largest nation in terms of Mormon population. Would such be the case had G.A. Smith blown off the concerns of the Third Convention and other Mexican members in their time of need?

George Albert Smith is my favorite church president for one basic reason: he loved humanity. It didn't matter if they were good or bad, kind or mean, believers or non-believers. All humanity has worth and G.A. Smith knew it. His example is a lesson to every single member who feels the need to rebuke others. Whether it be a member who has "fallen away", a person with a disability or an individual in the depths of depression, George Albert Smith's example shows us the correct code of conduct to all humanity. I for one look forward to this year's curriculum on the life and teachings of a fantastic man, example and prophet.

Another way that George Albert Smith helped to modernize the church was via television and media. He was actually the first church president to broadcast his messages on television. I enjoyed this one because it not only shows G.A. Smith's joyous personality but also reveals how he was essentially a "bridge" between old school and modern Mormon preaching. President Smith's boisterous demeanor and use of hand gestures was common of 19th century preachers (including Mormons). You can tell in this video that G.A. Smith was clearly influenced by that style, but was also trying to also change the mold. This is good stuff. Enjoy:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Here We Go a-Caucusing

What is a Caucus?
And Where Did It Come From?

Tonight the primary season for the 2012 presidential election begins (ugh!). The Iowa Caucus, which has traditionally been the first major presidential primary event since the early 1970's, will be our first forecast into what is sure to be a fascinating election season. After Iowa, several other states (including my beloved "Centennial State") will also gather its delegates into various caucuses to nominate the man/woman they feel is the best possible candidate for the presidency of the United States. These caucuses, which are essentially nothing more than group meetings of political supporters, may seem a bit confusing to both the participants and to the general public. After all, isn't it a much easier process to simply cast an electronic vote?

What most Americans don't know when it comes to the caucus is the fact that it is a very old tradition, which dates back to a time before the United States ever existed. Though the origins of the word are still debated to this day, caucus is believed to have originated from the Algonquin Indians, who resided in what is today New York and Vermont. It is believed that the Algonquin word 'cau´-cau-as´u', meaning "counsel" was adopted by early American Democratic-republicans in the latter part of the 18th century. Historian J.L. Bell notes that the first known usage of the word caucus comes from the diary of America's second president, John Adams, who wrote:

"This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. Uncle Fairfield, Story, Ruddock, Adams, Cooper, and a most rudis indigestaque Moles of others are Members. They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures. Captn. Cunningham says they have often solicited him to go to these Caucas, they have assured him Benefit in his Business, &c."
(Click here for the link to the electronic archive of the Diary of John Adams)
And though the Iowa Caucus represents only 1% of all delegates, Iowa has been an effective indicator into how a presidential primary may go. Of the ten Democratic Iowa Caucuses since 1972, seven have gone on to be the party's nominee. For Republicans, six of the nine Iowa Caucus winners have won the party's nod. In short, the Iowa Caucus votes for the party's eventual nominee about 65-70% of the time; not a surefire gauge for the future but good enough for us to understand why the candidates love Iowa so much.

So as you make your way to your state's caucus in the next few months (assuming your state has one), remember that you are participating in a tradition that is possibly older than America itself. To go "a-caucusing" is an activity as American as apple pie, which, by the way, Native Americans enjoyed as well.

My prediction for tonight's caucus: Mitt Romney edges out Ron Paul to win.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Of Kings, Popes, Ecclesia and Mundus

The Love/Hate Relationship
Between Church and State

210 years ago today, on New Year's Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to a group of Connecticut Baptists who had been the unfortunate victims of religious persecution. At the time, Connecticut had established Congregationalism as the official religion of the state, and these Danbury Baptists had asked President Jefferson for aid. In what has become known as the Danbury Letter, President Jefferson responded to the Danbury Baptists by repeating the words of the First Amendment, which state that Congress shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." President Jefferson then added the words, "thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

This "wall" of "separation" between church and state is the fundamental issue at play in many a culture war today. Advocates in favor of a "Christian Nation" reduce the significance of the Danbury letter by revealing the fact that the phrase "separation of church and state" is nowhere to be had in our founding documents. Those opposed to the "Christian Nation" rebuke such a claim by pointing out that many of those same founding documents (particularly the Constitution) make no mention of God. And while both sides make appeals to different influencing factors that helped to bring about the formation of the United States (i.e. Christianity, Enlightenment, etc.) it is important for us to recognize that there is NOTHING uniquely American about this church/state battle.

To better understand the depth and the importance of this church/state conflict let us travel back to a time when it wasn't constitutions and congresses that made law but rather kings and popes. Of course I am speaking of Medieval times. This was a time of passionate religious and political bickering, as heads of state (or kingdoms) and vicars of Christ jockeyed with one another for ultimate control. The question of who possessed ultimate authority became the central theme of almost all Medieval politics. Pontiffs and princes, priests and politicians, spend centuries arguing over this singular issue in the futile effort to seize a measure of control over the other.

The analysis into the origins of this Church/State conflict could, if we let it, take us all the way back to Constantine himself. Ever since the day that Constantine the Great saw his famous vision and heard the voice "En Hoc Signo Vinces", the battle between church and state has been a raging fire throughout the Western world. Constantine's newly endowed Catholic Church, complete with imperial sanctioning and ecclesiastical authority, was a budding juggernaut of power that would eventually monopolize the governments of heaven and much of earth. Unlike its pagan predecessors, which required no major governing bureaucracy, Christianity (at least of the dominant Roman Catholic form) developed a hierarchical, authoritative governing body that eventually came to rival that of the Roman Empire itself (many historians, including the legendary Edward Gibbon, have hypothesized that this development was THE catalyst to the demise of the western Roman Empire). Traditional and simplistic rituals to the various gods and priests of paganism were replaced with dominant and influential representatives of the resurrected Christ who held all the keys to one's salvation.

As Christianity continued to rise upon the ashes of the dead western Roman Empire, various leaders of various lands hitched their wagons to the church in order to add divine sanctioning to their leadership resumes. Gothic lords and Frankish kings all saw the advantages that Christianity provided. It is therefore no surprise that so many of these former "barbarians" eventually became anointed kings and saints of the church. But these perks were not without their costs. As the Medieval world continued to evolve, monarchs found themselves at odds with their religious counterparts. Popes, abbots, bishops and priests demanded more control (and money) from their secular leaders, who were often found reluctant to acquiesce to those heavenly demands. And with Catholicism still in its infancy, secular leaders were able to put the early church in check by integrating themselves in with church authority. For example, most early popes relied upon powerful monarchs for not only protection but also for their nomination to the papacy. For centuries, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire wielded incredible influence over new nominees to the Holy See, and once in power, these same popes relied heavily upon the Emperor's authority. There is no greater example or precedent of this fact than Pope Leo III, who begged Charlemagne for protection and for reinstatement to his seat as Bishop of Rome. Charlemagne obliged Leo and restored him in Rome; a gesture that Leo rewarded by pledging his allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and by crowning Charlemagne in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day, 800.

But this reliance upon monarchs was not held in high esteem by everyone within the church. For centuries church authorities had tried, with varying levels of success, to break free from the secular power. From the fraudulent Donation of Constantine to Libertas ecclesiae, examples of Ecclesia's quest to be on equal or superior footing with Mundus fill the archives. The best example of this quest to "break free" and assert the church's ultimate authority is the Investiture Controversy, in which several kings (specifically King Henry IV) and popes (specifically Pope Gregory VII) took center stage in a clash worthy of a Hollywood script. In a nutshell, the Investiture Controversy was a disagreement that arose when church leaders challenged those monarchs who had granted appointments (investitures) to bishops and abbots within their kingdom. Contrary to popular belief, the church did not always exercise its domain over the appointment of local leaders. In fact, almost all local bishops and abbots of the early Medieval period were appointed by their local secular powers. This was due to the fact that these positions were almost always accompanied with a large land endowment. In what became known as the practice of Simony, kings and lords profited substantially from the sale of these church investitures, which were usually granted to secular nobles who could both afford to pay for the post and would remain loyal to the crown. For obvious reasons, church leaders saw this practice as an affront to their sovereignty and authority and looked for ways to change the status quo. This effort, however, proved to be extremely difficult, especially in the wake of ugly affairs like the Rule of the Harlots and the Great Schism of 1054.

An opportunity for change finally presented itself 1056 with the death of Emperor Henry III. Henry's successor, six-year-old Henry IV, was obviously too young to govern, thus opening the door for the church to make its move. During Henry IV's youth, the church made three significant moves to help establish its supremacy: First, in 1059, Gregorian reformers helped to push forward the all-important Papal Bull, In Nomine Domini, which established the College of Cardinals and invested in them the exclusive power of electing future popes. Second, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII created the Dictatus Papae, which, among other things, stated that the Pope alone had the authority to depose an emperor. And third, in a Lantern Council of 1075, church leaders declared that the Pope alone had the power of investitures. With these three new mandates in hand, church authorities were finally armed with the justification for ultimate sovereignty that they had longed for.

But as was often the case with Medieval politics, many within the secular realm were not impressed. Now no longer a child, King Henry IV elected to continue with the status quo and appointed his own bishops and abbots. In addition, Henry revoked his imperial support of Pope Gregory and issued a stern warning to the Holy Father. In a letter to Pope Gregory (in which Henry addressed him as "Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk") Henry declared that his divine kingship came not from papal decree but from god himself:

And we, indeed, have endured all this, being eager to guard the honor of the apostolic see; you, however, have understood our humility to be fear, and have not, accordingly, shunned to rise up against the royal power conferred upon us by God, daring to threaten to divest us of it. As if we had received our kingdom from you! As if the kingdom and the empire were in your and not in God's hands! And this although our Lord Jesus Christ did call us to the kingdom, did not, however, call thee to the priesthood. For you have ascended by the following steps. By wiles, namely, which the profession of monk abhors, you have achieved money; by money, favor; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace you have disturbed peace, inasmuch as thou hast armed subjects against those in authority over them; inasmuch as you, who were not called, have taught that our bishops called of God are to be despised; inasmuch as you have usurped for laymen and the ministry over their priests, allowing them to depose or condemn those whom they themselves had received as teachers from the hand of God through the laying on of hands of the bishops.
Unfortunately for Henry, his royal rebuking fell on deaf ears. Pope Gregory simply ignored the letter and responded by excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor. Not only did Henry's excommunication please church authorities but it also excited a number of German lords who had longed for a justification to usurp the king and increase their own wealth and power. Faced with overwhelming opposition from the church and growing hostility from his nobles, Henry finally chose to swallow his pride and appealed to Pope Gregory for reinstatement (legend has it that Henry traveled to Canossa, adorned himself in hairshirt and stood barefoot in the snow). Pope Gregory eventually removed Henry's excommunication but did not declare him king. In 1080 German lords had elected a new king, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, and had petitioned Gregory to anoint him as Holy Roman Emperor. Gregory found himself at a difficult crossroad and decided to not anoint either man as king. This infuriated Henry who proclaimed Clement III as pope (or antipope if you are on Gregory's team). Henry then attacked and killed Rudolf of Rheinfelden and moved on Rome to forcibly remove Gregory from the papacy. Left with no choice, Gregory called on Normon allies to come to his rescue. And though the Normans were successful in driving Henry's forces back, they chose to sack Rome themselves, causing Gregory to flee for his life.

Eventually the Investiture Controversy was resolved by Henry and Gregory's successors. The Concordat of Worms, which essentially granted sovereignty to both the church and the state in their respective realms, became one of the first occasions in which a "wall" of "separation" was created. The Investiture Controversy, though a dramatic mess to say the least, had revealed the fact that mixing matters of church and state together would surely lead to an explosive reaction. Both entities needed a buffer from one another. As the great Medieval historian Norman Cantor put it:

The Investiture Controversy had shattered the early-medieval equilibrium and ended the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus. Medieval kingship, which had been largely the creation of ecclesiastical ideals and personnel, was forced to develop new institutions and sanctions. The result during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, was the first instance of a secular bureaucratic state whose essential components appeared in the Anglo-Norman monarchy.
And though the tug-o-war between church and state would rage on for several more centuries, the Investiture Controversy was a landmark event for both ecclesia and mundus. It gave religion a greater measure of independence from secular authorities who had for too long meddled in affairs to which they did not belong. The Investiture Controversy also endowed the state with a very clear sense of legitimacy that would, over the next millenia, rely less and less upon ecclesiastical endorsement and divine right authority. In short, the Investiture Controversy became the launchpad for future reformers and revolutionaries, who battled against the powers of church and state, in an effort to legitimize the independent authority of both. While the Investiture Controversy (along with subsequent struggles over the next several centuries) didn't completely solve the church/state debate, it did lay some of the initial mortar for the "wall." And as we have learned, this "wall" is not made of bricks but rather is a semi-permeable membrane through which church and state are able to occasionally cross, though once crossed is navigating through delicate waters.

For me, the church/state barrier is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: though very different in texture and flavor the two were made for one another, so long as they are applied in the appropriate proportions and nobody uses the jelly knife to scoop out the peanut butter (or visa-versa). And as everyone knows, though sticky and often messy, there is nothing better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!